How to give a great public speech
All of us who work at a job or provide some sort of service for a living have at one point in time or another been required to give a public speech or presentation to our peers and/or bosses. Perhaps it was an academic presentation we had to give at school, a progress report on a project at work, or a training session in which we were tasked with passing on our knowledge on a particular subject matter to others. No matter what your field of expertise is, chances are that you will be called upon at some point in your career to communicate effectively to other human beings. Further, it is likely that the people with whom you will need to effectively communicate your ideas won’t have accumulated the same level of knowledge that you have in your field of specialization. This usually means that you will need to communicate your ideas in a way that is eminently understandable for relative novices. In other words, you will have to distill your years of knowledge down into “plain english” for your audience to get the most benefit. This is what the best public speakers instinctively know, and are able to pull off time and time again. If you look closely at the very best presentations or keynote speeches, you will often find that you need only a rudimentary understanding of the subject matter to actually gain some very valuable insight from them and this is neither a coincidence nor an accident. On the contrary, you can be sure that whenever you’ve witnessed one of these sorts of presentations, a ton of work has gone into crafting them. For the remainder of this article, we will refer to such presentations as Powerfully Effective Presentations or “PEPs” for short.
Even though the ability to give a good PEP is generally crucial to the forward progress of most of our careers, a lot of us are still not very good at it. This became pretty glaring to me early on in graduate school when I was often left more confused about a topic after sitting through a presentation on it than I was before I started listening. As I noticed during my time at Stanford, even professors at some of the best higher institutions in the world are pretty bad at conveying their obvious brilliance to their students. The inability of these professors to effectively impart knowledge made the classes they taught unpopular amongst students. Very few of us wanted to take those classes because word quickly spread that said professors were bad at explaining themselves, making it hard for an honest hardworking student to gain anything meaningful from the lectures. Although tenured university professors are in the unique position where they can afford to dismiss the importance of public speaking (and get away with it for the most part), the reality is that most of us cannot do that if we want to continue to advance in our careers. Moreover, who knows how much better off some of these high achieving professors would be if they managed to add great public speaking to their already formidable set of skills.
For those of us that are constantly looking to advance our careers regardless of the current level we may have attained, understanding what makes a powerfully effective presentation possible is very important. Having spent years striving to understand the keys to delivering a PEP, I have come to a startlingly simple answer that I would like to share with you (with your permission of course). Although we will flesh out the key points that you will need to work on in order to deliver powerfully effective presentations time and time again, the fundamental contributing factors to a PEP can be summarized in two sentences. First you must humble yourself and forget about how smart you are so that you can commit to being of service to your audience. Second, you must embrace arduous and sometimes boring practice. Now then, let’s discuss some of the most important factors that contribute to a powerfully effective presentation.
Get over yourself
Make your slides weeks in advance
Make your slides more illustrative and less wordy
Embed your message into your subconscious mind… practice ad nauseam
Give dry runs to a “brain trust” for constructive feedback
Suffer fools gladly…
It is human nature to be a bit selfish and we all are to a certain degree. You can either spend a lifetime complaining about this, or you can learn to use this to your advantage. When people sit down for a public speech or presentation, they aren’t interested in hearing about how brilliant you are, seeing how good your clothes look on you, or how awesome your research is. Although being intelligent, well dressed, and having good work to present will certainly help you deliver a PEP, they aren’t sufficient for a great presentation. The innate selfishness of your human audience means that you will have to somehow make your work relatable to them and their life experiences in order to truly grab and hold their attention. To do this effectively, you will need to submerge your ego and devote yourself to serving, entertaining, and educating your audience. So please don’t go up to the podium and solely pontificate about how awesome you and your work are. Rather, you should find ways to make the subject you are discussing readily understandable to them. In doing the preliminary structuring of your presentation, you should be constantly asking yourself the following question – what’s in it for them (your audience)? Let’s assume that you are a researcher studying cancer in the hopes of contributing to an eventual cure for it. You’ll be better served starting your presentation by asking people in the audience who have been directly affected by the disease to raise their hands before you start. This immediately shows that you have a certain degree of empathy for the people that are listening to you talk, and that you are well connected to the benefit your work could potentially have for mankind as a whole. This is much better than just launching into the details of some molecular genetic pathway associated with cancer, while smugly talking down to folks who don’t understand them.
This is a paradoxical point because people are often put off by folks who are obviously trying too hard to impress with big words and difficult to understand concepts while they are magnetically drawn to folks who show the social intelligence that it takes to break down those complex concepts into “plain english” that is much easier to grasp.
Most of us have the habit of procrastination. The usual reason for this is because of our inherent human lazy streak. Procrastination can also be a passive aggressive response which signals that you hate the field you are working in, even though you might pretend to love it when you’re around your boss and/or colleagues. Anyhow, if you are in a field that you don’t like, you must find a way to slowly transition your way out of it. For our purposes here, let’s assume that you actually like your work and leave the details of how to change careers to another article.
Another key step towards giving a powerfully effective presentation is to make sure you think carefully about the structure and content of your presentation well in advance. The reason for this is simple. If you talk to anyone who has mastered their craft, they will often tell you that the first version of anything they create is usually pretty bad and has to go through multiple iterations before it becomes something special. My favorite author – Robert Greene – has often referred to the first drafts of his books as “crappy”. Some of the greatest artists end up painting over their work a bunch of times and throwing away numerous sketches because the first versions were lacking the quality they wanted. It will be no different with you and your presentation so you must start early to give yourself the time to re-work the content of your presentation until you get it to flow fantastically well. You can use software packages like keynote™ from Apple, or Powerpoint™ from Microsoft to draft and continually refine your presentation.
Humans are visual creatures which means we relate much better to pictures than to spoken word. If you think about it on a deeper level, it actually makes sense because we as a species have always had eyes to see things whereas the existence of spoken language is relatively new to us. So while you are creating your slides, avoid having too many unnecessary words on them for people to read through. The reality is that most people’s eyes will glaze over if you try to force them to read through too much text on your slides. Concentrate on replacing wordiness with nice clean illustrations that convey your point succinctly.
It is important to note here that although you shouldn’t have too many words on your slides, you should be ready to eloquently talk about them in a way that is very understandable to your audience. During your presentation or speech, your slides should almost be an afterthought or backup that you only refer to when you really want to drive a point home. This means that just standing there and reading off your slides is an absolute “no-no” if you want to deliver a powerfully effective presentation. Your audience is there because they want to relate to you and the valuable information that you will share with them. They aren’t there because they want to read slides… they can easily do that from their work desks or the comfort of their homes. It is up to you to carefully think of the words and phrases that you will need to use in order to bring your message alive within them. While you do this, avoid the temptation to assume that your audience has prior knowledge of your subject matter. Avoid using acronyms on your slides. Even if some people in your audience are pretty knowledgeable about the subject matter, breaking down your presentation to “bite-size” understandable chunks for your audience will help your message come through that much more clearly.
Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself a visual person, there are a lot of online services that will sell good illustrations to you at a reasonable price. Also, I bet you have one or two people in your inner circle of friends that are artistic. You can commission them to make some images for you in return for some cash, or perhaps a favor they need. Please don’t try to get your friends to do too many things for you without fair compensation in whatever form you choose. If you do that too often, you’ll lose friends.
A lot of people talk about memorization in the negative, referring to it as a waste of human mental resources. “Why should I memorize anything when I can look it up in a book or on Google?” For the most part, folks who think like this are correct because having ready access to good information that you can easily look up allows the mind the freedom to operate on the higher plain of creativity. Giving a PEP (powerfully effective presentation) is one of the few realms where memorization is actually a good thing. The reason why memorizing the verbal message that you will deliver in combination with your slides is twofold. First, you’ll probably be nervous when you get up in front of a room of people to give your presentation (assuming you’re a human being) and knowing exactly what to say will help you relax and put you in a good state of flow early on and for the remainder of your speech. Second, it is likely that something will distract you during your presentation – some annoying person’s cell phone will ring or you might catch a cynical disapproving smirk from someone in the audience. If you don’t know your presentation inside out, these unforeseen hiccups will probably throw you off your game. If you know your message like the back of your hand though, nothing less than the impact of a MACK sized truck will be able to disrupt your flow.
The best way to internalize the verbal message of your presentation is to spend some time thinking about and actually writing out the exact words that you would like to use to describe each slide of your presentation. While doing this, try to avoid the use of “big” words because remember that we are focused on being of service to people rather than impressing them with our brilliance. With the wealth of digital gadgets that we all now have at our disposal, you could easily do this on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. An effective way to do this is to get clear on the exact words you would like to use to describe each of your slides, and then recite them into the voice recorder function on your smartphone or a tape recorder. You can then listen to your message a lot of times while on a walk, on your way to work in your car, at the gym, or while you are running errands at home. As you continue to listen to your message, try to stop at hourly intervals and attempt to recall as much of it as you can. You will be bad at this to begin with and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Like any other thing in life though, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Keep this up until you can recite the entire presentation from start to finish and can easily associate your words with the appropriate slides. You will probably find this difficult and annoying at first, but if you can push through until your message is locked into your subconscious mind, it will make all the difference during your presentation. If you do this correctly, you will just know which slide is up next at any point during your presentation, and exactly what to say when it pops up. Having this form of power will replace any fear or apprehension with confidence.
We should also note here that this will take a substantial amount of time and is another reason why it is best to start working on your presentation well in advance of the actual day.
Even if you have spent a lot of time adequately preparing to give your presentation, it is always helpful to get honest and unbiased feedback from intelligent people that you respect. Ask some of your colleagues or friends to set aside an hour to listen to you give a mock “dry run” of your presentation. Encourage them to give you their honest feedback and assure them that you will not take any criticism personally. The aim of such an exercise is to merely help you improve yourself. Any criticism you may get doesn’t at all reflect negatively on your intelligence or work ethic. Think of it as a realistic checkpoint which will help you see your work through the eyes of others and help you correct any of its flaws.
A word of caution here… please avoid selecting people who are jealous of you (yes, some of your friends might be jealous of you), excessively cynical, or people who are crazy in love with you for your dry run. Emotions tend to cloud objectivity which in turn will make their ability to give clear headed feedback almost impossible. Remember that getting a realistic sense of the impact of your work, its strengths, and what it might be lacking is the most important objective with this. That should be all that matters to you in executing this step towards giving a PEP to your eventual live audience.
Most of the problems we face in our day to day lives comes from the emotional drain we experience from some of the people around us. This is especially relevant in dealing with people who we will refer to as “fools”. In life and work in general, the main aim should be the most efficient and effective use of resources to accomplish goals and aims. Unfortunately however, you will continually encounter “fools” in your life who have no sense of proportion or fairness as it pertains to the dealings of life.
You can identify a “fool” by the following rubric:
- They make it difficult for other people to achieve results.
- They don’t get very much done by themselves… they like to work in groups, so that others can do the work for which they will spend an eternity arguing to take credit for.
- They have no sense of proportion, meaning that in any situation they focus on things that aren’t mission critical effectively ignoring things that could actually destroy the entire project or initiative
- They enjoy drama for its own sake and love to drag you into silly political squabbles just because… well, they’re foolish!
These “fools” annoy and irritate us and the natural response to that is to spend a lot of time and energy fighting them. What you must understand is that these fools do not care or understand anything about fairness or rightness. So arguing with them is a colossal waste of your time. One solution is to learn how to spot these types and avoid them at all cost if you can. This is tricky since there are often too many fools for any of us to completely avoid. Moreover you often won’t have any control over the guest list at many of your presentations. The following are some strategies that you can use to prepare yourself for some of the “fools” you might have to deal with during your presentations.
Deep breathing right before your presentation
Deep breathing is excellent for calming the nerves. Making it a habit to do some deep breathing right before each presentation will soothe your nerves and make it more difficult for any “fools” in your audience to get under your skin by constantly interrupting you or asking too many questions. Your calm state will give you a better chance of enduring their foolishness and smoothly resuming your presentation.
Follow the instructions below to execute a deep breathing session:
- Try to focus entirely on your breath
- Take a deep breath in being sure to draw breath from your diaphragm which is right above your stomach. Usually 5 – 7 seconds should suffice
- Breathe out for twice as long. Usually 10 – 14 seconds should suffice
- Repeat this for as long as you want or until you feel calm. Note that your mind may wander away from your breath… that’s ok. When you notice this, just gently bring your attention back to your breath and re-focus. The more you do this, the better you will get over time.
Spend time playing devil’s advocate to anticipate questions from the audience
One of the ways that people get tripped up during presentations is when they get stumped by a question to which they don’t know the answer. It is highly recommended that you ruthlessly examine your presentation during your practice sessions and try to anticipate the types of questions that each slide and the accompanying verbiage may stir up. It’s OK if you don’t know the answers to these questions right there and then (that’s the whole point of practice) because you can simply look them up or ask somebody who knows. Make sure you do this for every single slide in your presentation. Playing devil’s advocate to your own presentation should be done on top of the questions you will get from your friends and colleagues during your mock “dry run”. This will give you more confidence going into it, and prime your mind to handle any questions that you may get from the audience. Even if the the questions you get from your audience aren’t exactly the questions you thought up, you will find that the mere fact you thought up questions forced you to think deeper about your presentation, equipping you with the tools you need to handle questions you hadn’t even considered yet.
Giving a powerfully effective presentation is a difficult thing to do. Giving a PEP basically demands that we have a detailed oriented communication session with people while trying to avoid boring them to tears… and therein lies the paradox. The points/guidelines above are the best ways that I have found in my experience to convey meaningful information to people in a powerful way that leaves a lasting impact on them. No matter what business you’re in, you will constantly need to sell to people and convince them of the value that you can add to their lives. As a result, learning to give a PEP will almost certainly be a prerequisite for successfully making your way forward in our increasingly competitive world. Till next time my friends, take care of yourselves and each other.